The Immaculate Conception

The Immaculate Conception of the glorious ever-virgin Mary, mother of God, who by a singular privilege of God was preserved entirely free from the stain of original sin. Pope Pius IX solemnly established this feast day. – Roman Martyrology for December 8

In Roman Catholic teaching, "original sin" is the sin of Adam which humans inherit at conception but which is washed away in Baptism. "The Immaculate Conception" is the doctrine that Mary was preserved from original sin at the moment of conception, receiving in advance the grace of Baptism that her son would earn for all mankind. Writers since the 4th century have referred to Mary as "immaculate" but the doctrine was hotly disputed in the Middle Ages, with the Dominicans generally opposed and the Franciscans favoring it with astonishing fervor (example). It was officially promulgated in 1854 (Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Im­macu­late Conception").

In the 16th century Molanus (393-94) commended the use of references to the Song of Solomon in images relating to Mary's conception. He mentions the sun, moon, stars, and the words of Canticle 4:7, Tota pulchra est amica mea et macula non est in te ("All beautiful is my friend and there is no stain in thee"). The verse is used as an antiphon at Vespers on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and in reference to it some Immaculate Conception images are entitled Maria Tota Pulchra. The second one at right is an example.

Some 16th- and 17th-century images of Mary's birth and early years use symbolism to suggest the child's purity. Baskets of eggs, symbolic of purity and chastity, are included in Titian's Presentation of the Virgin Mary and Zurbarán's Birth of the Virgin. In Luca Giordano's Birth the baby is a source of light, like the Christ Child in Nativity images, Jesus being the only other person said to have been conceived without sin.

In the 17th century a specific iconography for the Immaculate Conception developed from what was taken to be a reference to Mary in Revelation 12:1 – "And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars." As in the first picture at right, the images show Mary "clothed" with a sunburst, with twelve stars about her head. The "crown of twelve stars" even appears sometimes in images of the young Mary learning to read from her mother, St. Anne (example).

Sometimes there will be a dragon beneath Mary's feet, in reference to the red dragon of Revelation 12:4 that "stood before the woman who was ready to be delivered, that when she should be delivered, he might devour her son." In the second picture at right, the dragon is being cast down by the archangel Michael, which is what happens in Revelation 12:7-9.

Angels are usually in attendance. The moon may be a crescent, as in the third picture at right, but in the 19th and 20th centuries it is more likely to be a sphere, as in the first two pictures at right. Less commonly, Mary may be standing only on clouds, in which case there should be some other reference to Revelation 12 (example). She almost always has her hands pressed together in prayer.

Prepared in 2017 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2018-04-15, 2021-07-01.

OTHER MARIAN PORTRAIT TYPES
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The Immaculate Conception with all four identifying features: 12 stars, dragon, sunburst, and moon. (See the description page.)


This painting has the title Maria Tota Pulchra. (See the description page.)


Many Immaculate Conceptions have Mary standing on a crescent moon. (See the description page.)

MORE IMAGES

  • 1637: Ribera's painting omits the dragon and adds the Holy Spirit as a dove.
  • Circa 1690: A Madonna and Child image with many of the features of an Immaculate Conception.
  • Late 17th / early 18th century: painting in Venice's Ognissanti church.
  • 18th century: Statue with crescent moon and dragon but no stars or sunburst.
  • 1732: Sebastiano Ricci's painting retains the customary iconography.
  • 1753: Combined with Coronation iconography in a Mexican nun's badge.
  • 1760: Morlete's Allegory of the Immaculate Conception as Defender of the Faith riffs on the commentators' interpretation of the dragon as the enemies of the Church.
  • First half of the 19th century: Rusteghello's painting of the Immaculate Conception adds St. Michael.
  • 19th century (?): Pew back combining Immaculate Conception iconography with that of the Madonna and Child.
  • 19th century: Stained glass window in a church in Canada.
  • 1817: A mosaic of St. Anne with the young Mary in Palermo's Palatine Chapel gives Mary the crown of stars characteristic of Immaculate Conception images.
  • 19th/20th century: Statue in the same church.

DATES

  • Feast day: December 8

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